Tag Archives: holidays

time for jam

1 Sep

raspberry jam jars

On holidays, you have time to paint your nails, to carefully stroke on three coats of coloured varnish. You can pick your jewel colours and then change them in three days if the whirlwind of meals-books-pool becomes too dull. At work, you are absolutely not allowed nail varnish for how quickly it would chip and fall into the cake mixture. (At home, that is your own lookout!) The times you forget, you have to wear those horrid latex gloves.

On holidays though you have time for frivolities. Like the time we woke up and decided to learn to make jam. My mother said it was easy, as long as you only make a kilo of fruit’s worth at a time. Then you are not stuck stirring at a hot stove for ages, and the fruit doesn’t boil away all of its flavour. Again, not like at work where we had 13 kilos of fruits rouges and a plastic tub of pectin. At home we had some leftover frozen raspberries from coulis for peach melba and best of all a packet of jam sugar – ‘Confisquew’ as my mother calls it. The pectin is already incorporated, so after only five minutes boiling the jam will set like a dream.

Sterilise your jars in the dishwasher or in boiling water. Put a little saucer in the freezer. In a large heavy-bottomed pan you heat your raspberries with half a cup of water until they turn into soup. When it bubbles you add 700g jam sugar (Confisuc)  and bring to the boil. When bubbling and rising up like a angry sea, a ‘rolling boil,’ you time five minutes. At this point you maybe have time to apply nail varnish to one hand. Give the angrily boiling liquid a stir every now and then, in case it sticks. After five minutes, observe your jam carefully. The bubbles should sound a tone deeper, the mixture more syrupy than before. When you drag the wooden spoon across the bottom, it should take a second for the liquid red sea to come back together. If in doubt, test a drop on the cold saucer. When the jam is at room temperature it should hold its shape instead of sliding quickly over the saucer, it should form a slight skin that will wrinkle slightly when you push it. You will see the jam sticking around the edges of the pan and on the wooden spoon too.

When you are pretty sure the jam has jammed, turn off the heat. You will see the bubbles subside, leaving a slight white-ish froth. You can skim it off “if you want to win prizes at the WI” says mother, or strangely enough you can add 10g butter and watch it dissolve the scum.

Wait for 15 minutes. Finish painting your nails. When they are nearly dry but not quite set, you can run them under cold water. Now pay attention to the jam again. Fill the jars right to the brim with the hot jam, screw the lid on tightly and turn the jars upside down to form a vacuum.  (If you have some extra, pour into a little dish and put in the fridge for a snack later.) Leave to cool.

Our 700g raspberries made one small and two medium jars of the brightest jam. We couldn’t stop marvelling at the colour, at all the seeds suspended. It really did look like jam! Total cooking time – no more than half an hour. So we made plum jam too, fom our mirabelle tree. Mirabelles are small yellow plums not much bigger than cherries. We had a kilo, stoned with the cherry pipper. We left them to turn into soup with a cup of water. (Faster in a pressure cooker.) When the mirabelles break down into soft pulp, repeat the process. Sugar, boil, test, jar. Plums already have pectin in them, so we had a slightly thicker texture, of beautiful deep yellow-ochre, a hue just below apricot. It was sweet and bright and simple.

The kitchen had a crowd of upside-down jars, provisions for autumn. We had to clean a few stubborn pink spots off the cooker, and close the lid for the year. We locked the shutters and swept the floors. The sky was already grey, the wind already turned chill.

Back in Paris now, heralded by drops of rain, the summer jam – on croissants or rice cakes or porridge – bolsters me against the day ahead. And fills me with an immense satisfaction, akin to the patisserie I had abandoned over the summer. I learned something, and I made something, tangible, colourful and delicious.

I have been to my Crimée market twice now, once for apricots and once for figs. I am plotting limpid clear jams replete with over-large chunks of fruit, to line up on my kitchen counter. My nails are dark red and gold.


a campari cocktail for ferragosto

14 Aug

grapefruit campari

You can find a microcosm of France in its swimming pools. The outdoor ones are only open for two months in the summer – certainly no quibbling, heatwave or not. Rules are important, even in leisure time. Once I dared to ask to borrow a kickboard – un kickboard, apparently – and the (admittedly Parisian) lifeguard explained patiently that, since the pool would close in September, they had already given away all the equipment. This was at the beginning of July. . .

Here in the south, the water is beautifully warm. Our visits to the local pool mark an otherwise lazy day in the garden, planning what to eat next. Normally we go to the market first, stock up on warm baguettes and enormous tomatoes. Today we found “pineapple tomatoes” with succulent yellow flesh, perfect with ripe avocado and a sprinkling of salt. The lady at the vegetable stall was the best dancer at the annual garlic festival, I whisper to my mother. Which one? The diminutive sixty-something lady, with a twinkle in her eye – she was leading the line dancing last year.

When we have bought a case of peaches, tasted all the cheeses, and walked past the duck stall two or three times to swipe a bit of melting rillettes on toast, we go down to the swimming pool. It opens at twelve o’clock precisely, when most people go home for lunch. It is empty enough for us to do laps, for my stuntman brother to practise turns and jumps. In the afternoon there will be crowds of kids bombing down the slides, then begging for icecream. At midday there are a few locals, a granny or two and most notably, the man with one hairy shoulder. Every year, we try to figure it out. Only one shoulder. Hairy enough to wave like seaweed in the water, while the other is bare. Mystery.

Anyway, the most French of all these routines is that of the pretty lifeguard. She takes two weeks off in August. Even in high holiday season, she must have her break too. The pool is only open for two months, and she takes a holiday. Bien sûr!

My brother and I had swimming lessons every summer in France when we were small. He hated it – he hated not understanding the French. I acquiesced. The lifeguard had a different bikini for every day of the week, and a long pole she used to stop children from clinging to the side of the pool, not unkindly. No coddling. Probably why our neighbours’ kids are so well-behaved: they sit at the table for a dinner party and make polite and funny conversation. I was glad to see that nothing had changed twenty years on – a new lifeguard, but still a shivering child with floats around his waist, and a long pole.

Tomorrow is the quinze aout, or the Italian ferragosto – a sacred holiday in memory of the Annunication but mainly for the time-honoured right to faire le pont and take Friday off too. Two of my favourite Italians are coming to visit for the long weekend. We will be drinking my new favourite  summer cocktail, invented on one of the hottest days. A generous measure of Campari, half a glass of pink grapefruit juice and the rest topped up with sparkling water. Plenty of ice, of course. I’m afraid I couldn’t come up with a better name than ‘The Spinster’ since it is pink and gloriously bitter. I revel in the sharp tang of the long cool drink. It reminds me of all the Spritzes I have drunk with said Italians, in the days when we were all single, if not yet spinsters.

Possibly the pool will be closed tomorrow – it is the quinze aout after all – but if not, we will go for a splash there, and come home in time for sunset, where we will sit on the terrace with clinking glasses and wonder what is for supper.


The Spinster

makes one very generous long drink

50ml Campari

200ml pink grapefruit juice

200ml sparkling water

In a very large glass, mix all ingredients. Taste, adjust, add ice. Garnish with a slice of orange or grapefruit.

wild garlic

5 Jun

wild garlic in cup

This piece was originally written for the new and shiny Gravity Serpent zine.

Most of my memories are punctuated by something edible, one great meal or a transcendent piece of cake. That weekend in Cornwall will always be linked to wild garlic for me. It fixes the people in my mind more firmly, anchored by the scent of cliff paths and the taste of waxy new potatoes scattered with green.

My granny is lemons, always lemons: her fresh lemonade, her sticky lemon curd on soft white bread and that one time, stitched into family lore, when I had seven helpings of her lemon pudding. Now at the bakery when we have to squeeze hundreds of lemons for our special crème au citron, I think of her. When you zest enough, the little puffs of lemon oil given off form a thin mist that sparks green in the gas-fired hobs. And the smell conjures up my granny instantly.

At the moment, in her letters she is telling me lots of stories about her father, my great-grandfather, who was a psychiatrist as well as the author of several books on plants. According to her, “Wild Foods of Britain” was dashed off in the week before he was called up to be a naval doctor in WWII. It is a thin volume with simple line illustrations, matter of fact descriptions of each foraged herb, fungus or weed, and recipes with now-curious names like frumenty, kissel and caragheen mould. He is erudite with a dry wit. My favourite line so far comes under Pig Nut (Conopodium denudatum):

‘Caliban dug them with his fingernails but most people prefer to use a kitchen fork.’

I never met him, never could have, but through the stories and recipes he belongs to me somehow. He is a solid figure. Now I pay attention to all the food around us for the picking, though I couldn’t identify a pig nut to save my life. On holiday with my university friends in Cornwall, we picked the delicate white flowers whose stems, crushed between our fingers, were reminiscent of chives, a more subtle version of shop garlic. Finely sliced over boiled potatoes, with the bell-shaped flowers as a garnish, they made a perfect accompaniment to my most travelled recipe, mustard chicken. The one that I make to thank my hosts but also, in a selfish act of immortality, to have them remember me. It has made it as far as Australia and even onto a café menu, of its own accord. You need to allow a whole chicken leg and thigh, a big dollop of crème fraiche and a heaping teaspoon of mustard per person. It will certainly be more mustard than you think wise, but persevere. Massage it all into the chicken with salt and pepper, some cumin seeds if there are any lying around, and bake in a very hot oven. The mustard’s bite is tamed by the heat, leaving a crisp skin that is delightfully savoury, full of flavour.

We passed around bowls and plates, spun wine on the lazy Susan, laughing and talking over one another. I listened from the stove, mixing a last minute icing for the fresh banana cake. On just a short weekend in a seaside cottage, I didn’t have all the right bits and pieces, no whisk, no icing sugar. So just a packet of cream cheese, several tablespoons of raspberry jam and a squeeze of lemon juices. Light and sweet, flower-pink, rich but not cloying. The cake too was easy: two mashed ripe bananas, three eggs, some melted butter (about 50g), one small water glass of sugar, two of self-raising flour and a teaspoon of cinnamon. Mixed with a fork, poured into a greased tin and baked at about 180C for about 30 minutes, just enough time to run to the supermarket for chicken and wine and to pick some wild garlic from the path.

Now when I think of that meal, I can conjure all of the faces around the table. I hope they recreate and share the food too, or at least the memory of it. Sending a recipe off into the ether is almost as good as writing a book. It is a tangible piece of the past, the wild captured on our plates. It keeps that moment in the present; it keeps my friends close, and my great-grandfather as close as he will ever be.

Find information about the zine at gravityserpent.wordpress.com – or email gravityserpent@gmail.com to get your hands on a real paper copy.

tarte aux pommes

28 Oct

Normandy is like Hereford. Apple trees everywhere, hemmed in by tall hedges. Black and white houses. Tractors that lumber past, farmers that raise a hand curtly to thank you for waiting. Bed and breakfasts on every corner.

Normandy is also like Mongolia. One particular bed and breakfast boasts four authentic Mongolian yurts, decorated with traditional rugs and even a fur hat. But the fur is unnecessary – the gas heater made the round tent stifling hot. All the novelties of camping in greenery, complete with genuine rooster alarm, but with a bed and a duvet and a picture of a camel.

Normandy is a piece of England, whence William the Conqueror, the first king to really organise our tribal country and to record our history, our defeat colourfully embroidered along 70m of the Bayeux tapestry. It is also a little piece of the war, the second, in a way that England will never be. Concrete bunkers and lookout points pockmark the countryside, intrude on the flat empty beaches.

For me, it was a lot of apples. The little homely ones in huge piles waiting to be made into cider or calvados (apple liqueur). Also the tarte normande, a simple apple tart with as much variation as the region itself. Neat slices overlay a crème pâtissière base. Or great chunks of apple under a light almond crumble. Or my favourite, the tarte fine: wafer thin slices snake across buttery puff pastry, just dusted with brown sugar.

This is the pastry school version: to start, all you need is good, light pastry. Then delicious apples – not flabby, floury ones. Not supermarket ones. Interesting ones.

Cook one of them with sugar and lemon juice to a perfumed mush and spread over the bottom of the uncoooked pastry. Slice the rest thin and overlap them closely – they will shrink a little in the oven.

Sprinkle with just a little crunchy granulated sugar. Bake for about 40 minutes at 180C. Serve with cider, whipped cream and a real fire. (Or a gas fire – in your yurt!)

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